We've seen a wellspring of Jewish culture bubble up in popular music over the past few years. (Somewhat ironic given that Judaism has been around for, what, six millennia? But I digress. ... ) These days, even the pickiest of Jews can choose between schticky rap, shtettle-infused indie and "klezcore" punk. And now, thanks to a guy named Matisyahu, there's one more exodus from the norm—Orthodox Jewish reggae. You heard right. Instead of toking herb and praising Jah, this Hasidic New Yorker is all about the Torah—and he's good at it, too. Last week, the Alibi sat down for a phoner with Matisyahu, the world's first Hasidic reggae star.
Do you see any parallel with what you're doing and modern Christian music, which is also religious and has a youthful appeal?
I don't know so much about that music, but my feeling is that probably the message [in Christian music] is the main thing and the music is the means of attracting people in order to implant the message into them, and that's really not what I'm trying to do. I'm more taking the approach that people will listen to my music and the music will speak on its own if it's good enough. And if I have something real to say, and I have the mode of doing it in the best way, then the message will come out of that.
It just seems like Christian music is the only other thing on the radio where religion plays such a strong role.
I guess, but reggae music in general has a huge history of spirituality and God. It's in their religion and their lifestyle; they promote it in their music. I grew up listening to reggae music and Bob Marley, and they'd come out on stage and say greetings in the name of their god. When I first started out I was like, well, if these guys can do it, why can't I do it? And they did it in a really good way—it didn't seem like it was false, it just felt like they really believed in it. It was real to them. Majestic.
With so much political division going on within Judaism today it seems fitting that your medium is reggae, which is all about unity.
The truth is, I think Judaism is all about unity. That's what it's supposed to be—God is one. The idea being that this is a world of divisiveness and division and boundaries and limits and that everything in this world is separate. But the truth is that underlying that it all has the same source ... within God. So the whole journey and the whole process is trying to expose that truth of the oneness. That's what Judaism is. I think that reggae music appealed to me intuitively [as a teenager] because, even though I wasn't thinking so philosophically at that age, it did that also. When I heard the music it seemed very uniting.
Is there anything in Jewish law that might preclude you from performing? I mean, Friday nights are out for you, right?
Yeah, Friday nights are out. Saturday day is out, because it's Shavis (the sabbath), but besides that, there's not too much else. I can't jump into the crowd. I used to do that, but I can't anymore because you can't have men and women touching.
Oh, right. There might be women in the audience.
There are, for sure, women in the audience! I realized that after I (accidentally) grabbed one, one time. (Laughs)
What kind of fan base have you found that you attract?
A real mixture of people. This summer we did a lot of festivals like Bonnaroo and All Good, so that was all jam-band crowds. And then in the big cities there are definitely a lot of Jews that come out. And we did some big reggae stuff, which was all West Indian and Jamaican and whatnot. So by playing all those venues and crossing over into all those arenas, we're now making a bunch of alternative rock radio stations. So now, the crowd that comes out is this amazingly diverse crowd. It's really cool. It's really amazing to see.